SALT LAKE CITY — When I took my seat in the Leona Wagner Black Box Thursday night to see Pygmalion Theatre Company’s Seven, I knew I was going to see the stories of seven real women presented by seven female playwrights and performed by seven actresses. My initial thought was that, because of all the emphasis on the number seven (which is a pretty loaded number to begin with), the show might be made up of seven short plays strung together to make up an evening. I was pleasantly surprised to discover this wasn’t the case at all.
I don’t know how the seven playwrights—Paula Cizmar, Catherine Filloux, Gail Kriegel, Carol K. Mack, Ruth Margraff, Anna Deavere Smith, and Susan Yankowitz—went about creating this piece. Co-writing with only one other writer can have its challenges, so I can’t imagine collaborating with another six. But these seven women did write a play together, and there is significance in the fact that all of those sevens—subjects, countries, writers, and actresses—can all weave together into a single work of theatre.
Seven is a docudrama, telling the true life stories of seven amazing women fighting for women’s rights in countries across the globe in a lot, if not all, of their own words:
- Marina Pisklakova-Parker (Nova Calverley-Chase) founded Russia’s first domestic violence hotline as well as Center ANNA, providing counseling services for women.
- Farida Azizi (Tamera Howell) stood up against the Taliban, fighting against the margnizalation of Afghani women. She now lives in exile in the United States, but has not stopped working for the women of her homeland.
- Annabelle de Leon (Teresa Sanderson) is a congresswoman in Guatemala who challenges corruption in government and defends the rights of the poor.
- Hafsat Abiola (Angela Trusty), whose parents were both assassinated for their political activism, is the founder of the Kudirat Initiative for Democracy, which provides skills training for the young women of Nigeria.
- Inez McCormack (Betsy West) of Northern Ireland is a dedicated activist working on behalf of women’s and human rights, labor, and social justice.
- Mu Sochua (Kerry Lee) was nominated for a Nobel Prize for her work to end sex trafficking in Cambodia.
- Mukhtar Mai (Toni Lugo) was gang raped by four men in retribution for an honor crime allegedly committed by her younger brother. She eventually brought her assailants to justice, in addition to striving to improve conditions for women in Pakistan, and becoming a major advocate for education.
Stylistically Seven is based in storytelling, mostly in first person narrative. Talented director Lane Richins keeps the staging simple and elegant. Pillars of fabric, stretching from floor to ceiling, are the only set, effectively used for quick entrances and exits as well as being backlit for silhouette effects, allowing the very capable cast to play minor parts in each other’s stories. The actresses are dressed in black, each highlighted with a different colored scarf. The scarves are used for both the movement-based moments in the show (choreographed by Kerry Lee) and as the only props; most actions in the play are pantomimed.
The play has a number of lovely, lyrical moments, but aside from the monologues, the scenes are scattered, sparse, and short. Not all of these stories need to be enacted, of course, nor should they be; but do all need to be told rather than shown? At what point do you enhance the real with pretend? Is an actor expected to imitate a real person, or to create a new character? Are direct quotes more powerful than subtext?
Truth is the real star of this piece, and the design, directing, and acting choices emphasize that point. To hear these stories and know that everything expressed is based in fact is a mind-blowing and gut-wrenching experience. The play is earnestly produced and performed, though I personally came away more touched by the play’s gravity—and its message is incredibly important—than by the play itself.
That being said, I’m thankful for the simplicity of Pygmalion’s production. The focus is, as I said before, on the truth, and that is a beautiful thing. The women embodied in Seven are an inspiration, and this production pays them a worthy tribute.